Growing your own food can be the first step to a happy, healthy and sustainable lifestyle. Once you experience picking your first ever homegrown fruit and vegetables, I can guarantee you will be hooked on growing your own produce.
Why grow your own produce?
There are many health benefits to growing your own food, but the most obvious benefit is that you know exactly how your plants have grown and what has been used on them. You have complete control over the fertilisers and methods of pest control that are applied. You can even grow your vegetables organically, without the use of chemical-based fertilisers or pest and fungal sprays. You can create a biodiverse garden and encourage beneficial insects to call your garden home, such as lacewings, predatory mites and predatory beetles such as ladybirds. These all help keep pests under control naturally.
Know what is in season
To guarantee success in the garden it is important to understand what vegetables grow in which season. There are particular vegetables that grow better throughout the spring and summer months, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and chillies. Other vegetables grow best throughout the autumn and winter months. Cruciferous vegetables are the majority of what should be planted and sowed now in autumn. What are cruciferous vegetables? Cruciferous vegetables are those that belong to the Brassicaseae family and include broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale and many more. Root vegetables such as radishes, turnips and parsnips can be sown throughout the cooler months. Leafy greens, spinach, lettuce, leek, silverbeet and mustards thrive year-round. Mustards tend to grow better during the autumn months due to more consistent weather temperatures, which prevents them from bolting (bolting is when a plant produces a lot of flowers that turn into seed and therefore shorten its life). Other vegetables such as sugar snap peas, broad beans and snow peas can also be planted now for a winter and spring harvest. Long season vegetables that are usually harvested 100-130 days after sowing, such as shallots, garlic and onions, can also be sown now.
Preparation and aspect: How to sow seeds successfully
It is important to know that most seeds require a soil temperature of 15-25 degrees Celsius for germination. Therefore, it is usually recommended that seeds are not sown in winter because the soil is usually too cold for the seeds to germinate. Soil preparation and knowing how to sow your seeds correctly is important to the success of your plants. By taking the correct steps to sowing seeds you can enjoy the benefits of homegrown food in the months to come.
How do you prepare the soil? Whether you are planting into a new or old garden bed, pull out any weeds, then using a garden fork dig the soil over to break up any large clumps. Once the soil has been worked over well, add and mix aged compost into the soil. Compost will help to rejuvenate and improve the soil structure and add living organisms, which are beneficial for the overall health of your garden. Once the compost has been added, rake the soil to make it even before you start sowing your seeds.
Plants grown in too little light will not perform so well in the garden. Having the correct aspect is very important and can play a major factor in how well plants will grow and produce their fruit. Almost all vegetables require a hot sunny position in the garden that is exposed to a minimum of six hours of sunlight a day. Plants will usually indicate if the aspect they are growing in has too much or too little light for what they require. If plants are stretched, that is exhibiting weak growth and pale pigmentation in their foliage, this is an early sign of a lack of light. Lack of sunlight can also reduce the full potential of what a plant can produce in a season, causing fruit to be flavourless and can cause a delay in how quickly the vegetables ripen.
With so many different seeds on the market it can be a little confusing knowing how to sow them. There are many different techniques to growing vegetables from seed, but the two main methods are direct and indirect sowing. Direct sowing is when seeds are planted straight into the garden and indirect sowing is when seeds are sown into seedling trays or pots. With indirect sowing, the seeds are usually grown and cared for indoors until they are ready for planting.
Soil preparation and healthy soil is the key to successful germination when sowing directly into the soil. Healthy soil has plenty of organic matter, compost and active organisms, for example worms. The general rule to sowing seeds is to plant the seed as deep as twice its width. For example, a broad bean seed is 2mm wide, so plant it to a depth of 4mm. Next dust a thin layer of soil over the top to just cover the seeds. Lightly water the areas where the seeds have been sown and keep the soil moist until you start to see sprouts.
Indirect sowing is when seeds are sown into jiffy pots, bio-degradable pots, plastic pots or seedling trays. If re-using plastic pots or trays, make sure to clean them with hot soapy water and allow them to dry for 24 hours before use. It is recommended that you wash old pots and trays before using them to help to eliminate any dormant fungal spores that might be lingering.
Seed raising mix is ideal for the germination of seeds if they are grown in containers. Pick a container or pot and fill it to halfway with seed raising mix, sow seeds into the soil and dust a thin layer of soil over to cover the seeds. Water lightly and keep the soil moist – never let your seeds dry out! As soon as the soil dries out there is a high chance of the seeds failing to germinate. As a general rule, seeds being grown in a warm indoor environment may require misting every day. Seeds grown in a cooler environment may require misting every second day. Make sure the area isn’t too cold as it can affect the germination rate and success of the seeds. If sowing into jiffy pots, they do not require any extra soil as they are made up of sphagnum-peat moss and wood pulp, so you can sow directly into them. When your seedlings are ready for planting you can place them straight into the ground because jiffy pots are completely biodegradable.
Keep your pots or trays in a warm, well-lit area inside, such as the laundry or in a glasshouse. Once the seeds start to germinate and produce their second set of leaves they can be taken outside to a sheltered area for two weeks to be ‘hardened off’. Hardening off is when plants are exposed to different weather conditions to where they were germinated or have been growing for a long period of time. It is important for plants to climatise before being planted out into the garden to guarantee success. After the hardening off period your seedlings can be planted out into a prepared garden bed.
What to be mindful of:
Damping off – This is a fungus infection that affects young plants and seedlings. Symptoms are wilting and plants toppling over whilst showing signs of disease in stems at the soil level. Main forms of prevention include always using fresh new soil and to turn the soil over. Always clean seedling trays and pots before use. Copper fungicide can be diluted with water and sprayed onto the plants to prevent damping off.
Downy mildew – This is a fungus that attacks bedding plants such as annual flowers and vegetables. Affected leaves have yellow spotting on the upper leaf surface and the underside of the leaves have a white powdery mould. New growth is off-white discoloured and weak in appearance. The best method of control is to remove the worst of the affected plants and then spray the others with a copper fungicide. Avoid watering plants too late in the day to help prevent this from occurring.
Waterlogging – This kills a plant’s root system, thus resulting in the plant wilting at the tips of the stems, sometimes leading to the death of the plant. Pale pigmentation in the foliage and wilting are early symptoms of waterlogging. If the leaves are also spotted, the affected plants should be removed and the area sprayed with a copper fungicide. Waterlogging is due to the soil being overly wet. Proper soil preparation and ensuring the soil has good drainage before sowing or planting can help prevent waterlogging.
Chafer grub – Adult chafer beetles do not usually cause much damage to bedding plants, but the larvae can cause plant and crop failure as they feed on the roots of plants. The method for control is to thoroughly prepare the soil by digging the soil over. Any exposed chafer beetles can be removed by hand. Larvae also make a great snack for the chickens and wild birds.
About the Author – Bonnie-Marie Hibbs
Bonnie-Marie is a qualified horticulturalist and seedling manager at Gardenworld in Victoria. She has appeared on 3AW radio and writes a blog ‘The Gardener’s Notebook‘ to inspire and share knowledge.